- A novel method, based on the rational and systematic modulation of macroscopic structural characteristics on a template originating from a large number of natural, cell-lytic, amphipathic alpha-helical peptides, was used to probe how the depths and shapes of hydrophobic and polar faces and the conformational stability affect antimicrobial activity and selectivity with respect to eukaryotic cells. A plausible mode of action explaining the peptides' behaviour in model membranes, bacteria and host cells is proposed. Cytotoxic activity, in general, correlated strongly with the hydrophobic sector depth, and required a majority of aliphatic residue side chains having more than two carbon atoms. It also correlated significantly with the size of polar sector residues, which determines the penetration depth of the peptide via the so-called snorkel effect. Both an oblique gradient of long to short aliphatic residues along the hydrophobic face and a stabilized helical structure increased activity against host cells but not against bacteria, as revealed by haemolysis, flow cytofluorimetric studies on lymphocytes and surface plasmon resonance studies with model phosphatidylcholine/cholesterol membranes. The mode of interaction changes radically for a peptide with a stable, preformed helical conformation compared with others that form a structure only on membrane binding. The close correlation between effects observed in biological and model systems suggests that the 'carpet model' correctly represents the type of peptides that are bacteria-selective, whereas the behaviour of those that lyse host cells is more complex.